To describe the dead body that lay before me at my first tahara, the simple word “real” seems most appropriate. A tahara is the traditional Jewish cleansing performed on a body before burial.
At my recent first tahara, none of the cliches occurred. I did not feel scared or sickened by the body, but conversely I can’t say I sensed the neshama, the soul, circumambulating the room as reported by some people who perform the deed.
I wasn’t supposed to perform the tahara but observe. A tahara ideally is performed by four people. In the funeral home basement I stood beside the rosh, or head — the leader of the tahara — as he telephoned the team’s fourth and absent member, who responded that he was unable to make the scheduled tahara.
Instead of contacting another trained team member, the rosh allowed me to serve as the fourth based on my existing knowledge of the relevant customs and halachot, Jewish laws.
He knew I was no stranger to death. I had studied the laws of mourning in my rabbinical training. As long as I can remember my mother has been active in her local chevra kadishas, or Jewish burial societies. I narrated a widely used instructive video on tahara practice scripted by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the renowned director of the Vaad Harabanim of Queens and founding director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. I wrote the foreword to “Living Kaddish: Incredible and Inspiring Stories” regarding experiences of people in their year of mourning after losing a family member. I studied the signatures of serial killers for my master’s degree in forensic psychology.
And I had the unusual experience of actually performing CPR on the body of a man who passed away before my eyes. I was doing my brief hospital rotation while studying for my emergency medical technician’s license when a doctor carried out the life-saving maneuver on an old man whose heart had stopped in the hospital. After the doctor was sure that the man could not be revived, he allowed us two EMT students to attempt the procedure before pronouncing the man dead.
But this was different. The body before me was waiting for the chevra kadisha to enact the ultimate kindness, to prepare the body for burial in the age-old Jewish way.
I arrived at this moment through my position in the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, which carries the mission “to provide the entire Jewish community with a resource to help promote and strengthen traditional Jewish burial practices.” Among my early tasks was registering chevras across North America, and promoting NASCK newsletters and information among funeral homes.
One Jewish funeral director asked me on receipt of my call, “Have you ever done a tahara?”
I was prepared for the valid question: “I will be doing my first one on Sunday.”
He responded warmly but in a way that put his work and the work of chevra kadisha in perspective: “Let’s hope you won’t have to.”
He was right. For me to have to do a tahara would mean someone would die.
In today’s world of medical awareness, taharas are performed with sanitary precautions. Rubber gloves and aprons are donned. I was called on to assist in moving the body occasionally, and I noted through my gloves how cold it was to the touch. It only occurred to me afterward that the body temperature was a result of the refrigeration the funeral home used to stay the body’s deterioration.
This body — this man — was about my height, about my weight, not much older than me. I observed the rosh meticulously clean the body from head to toe. Any open wounds were treated with Monsel’s Solution, a coagulant. The rosh carefully washed away any dirt. He also wiped up blood and gathered unattached hair.
In Jewish tradition bodies are buried as complete as possible, and any blood or fluids that leak or are wiped from the body are buried along with the body. The act was sensitive — not delicate, rather caringly purposeful, like a mother removing ink from her child’s arm or syrup from her child’s cheek.
I poured water on the body as the cleaning was completed. I was instructed to pour backwards, turning my hand holding the bucket in the opposite direction than I intuitively would.
The body is then carefully placed on a slatted wooden base that is attached by natural fiber ropes to a pulley, which hoists the wood and moves it over a dedicated mikvah in the funeral home. The body is lowered inside for ritual immersion. In the interest of maintaining dignity, it is only at the moment of immersion that the body is completely exposed.
The body is then re-hoisted, covered and returned to the dressing table. On the table the body is completely dried and then dressed in tachrichim, traditional Jewish burial shrouds. The shrouds have no pockets and their only fasteners are drawstrings on the trousers and tunic.
The prepared body is put into the plain wood coffin. A light sprinkling of dust from Israel is placed at various points of the body, and clay shards are put on the eyes and mouth.
The body receives compassionate care. The Jewish name of the person is written on a board on the wall. The room is silent aside from occasional directions, the recitation of some prayers and supplications, and a request for forgiveness from the person on whom the tahara is performed lest any wrong was done the body during the process.
The body is a body; a human shell. Real.
The tahara is a beautiful and symbolic procedure, a respectful and tributary send-off. I can’t help but grieve for the growing number of Jews who opt to have their sullied remains carelessly tossed into crematoria for disposal.
After leaving the funeral home I proceeded to synagogue for morning prayers. I’m not sure I prayed with greater intent, but the deceased was surely on my mind.
When prayers were over I was hungry. I went to pick up bagels and eggs, foods that are traditionally associated with mourning — their roundness symbolizes the circle of life. But I think my motivation was baser. Appeasing hunger satisfies the living body. And there is nothing more life-affirming than death.
Rabbi Mayer Waxman is the national director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha.